In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, some media outlets have published pictures of the cartoons that were terrorists' purported justification for slaughter. Some have not. Some have steered a bizarre middle course and shown people holding blurred cartoons.
The New York Times has elected not to publish the cartoons depicting Muhammad. The Times' public editor explained the decision as follows:
Mr. Baquet told me that he started out the day Wednesday convinced that The Times should publish the images, both because of their newsworthiness and out of a sense of solidarity with the slain journalists and the right of free expression.
He said he had spent “about half of my day” on the question, seeking out the views of senior editors and reaching out to reporters and editors in some of The Times’s international bureaus. They told him they would not feel endangered if The Times reproduced the images, he told me, but he remained concerned about staff safety.
“I sought out a lot of views, and I changed my mind twice,” he said. “It had to be my decision alone.”
Ultimately, he decided against it, he said, because he had to consider foremost the sensibilities of Times readers, especially its Muslim readers. To many of them, he said, depictions of the prophet Muhammad are sacrilegious; those that are meant to mock even more so. “We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well: that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult.”
“At what point does news value override our standards?” Mr. Baquet asked. “You would have to show the most incendiary images” from the newspaper; and that was something he deemed unacceptable.
I have questions for the Times in light of this policy.
1. Does the Times maintain a list of gratuitously offensive types of expression, and act based on that list, or does it address items on a case-by-case basis? If there is a list, is it public?
2. How big does a group have to be for the Times to accept its assertion that particular expression is offensive?
3. What percentage of a group must view expression as offensive for you to refrain from that expression? In other words, what portion of Muslims must find depictions of Muhammad to be gratuitously offensive for you to refrain from that expression?
4. Do you consider the degree of offense within a particular group? How do you measure that degree?
5. If there is dissent within a social or religious community about whether something is gratuitously offensive, how do you decide which faction to listen to?
6. Do you consider whether claims to offense may be politically motivated? For instance, if some American group (say, religious conservatives) asserted loudly that use of terms like "Happy Holidays" was gratuitously offensive, would you accept that, or would you ignore it on the basis that it was part of a "culture war?" If Americans claimed that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is gratuitously offensive because it is calculated to mock religion, how would you evaluate that claim?
7. Do you consider the recency of claims of gratuitous offense? If the claims arise relatively recently — when in the past the conduct was tolerated or did not occasion great statements of offense?
8. Does it make any difference to your decision that a particular group will react to what it sees as "gratuitous offense" with violence? Follow-up: if you do consider that, do you evaluate whether responding to threatened violence by not publishing something may encourage more threatened violence?
9. Has the New York Times ever decided not to run a religious image other than Muhammad on the theory that it would be sacrilegious or gratuitously offensive? Which one?
10. The Times has previously run anti-Semitic cartoons when they are in the news, "Piss Christ," pictures of a painting of the Virgin Mary smeared with dung, and pictures of Westboro Baptist protesters in vivid anti-gay shirts. Is it the Times' position that those decisions can be reconciled with this one, or is this a change in policy? If it is a change in policy, is it intended as an institutional one, or one that just remains during the tenure of a particular editor?
11. Please consider the cover of the new post-massacre Charlie Hebdo:
Is this picture, leaving offense aside, newsworthy? If so, will you weigh that newsworthiness against the offense you believe it will give, or apply a categorical ban? Do you believe that words can adequately convey the literal, figurative, and emotive impact? If someone asserts that the picture is offensive not just as a depiction, but as a caricature, can your readers evaluate that claim without looking at the picture?
12. Are there particular staffers at the Times who specialize in evaluating and advising about degrees of offense? How are they trained?
13. Do you have a plan for what to do if a group expands its assertions about what is offensive? For instance, suppose that some Muslims begin to assert — vociferously — that depictions of all those it counts as prophets (including Jesus) are offensive and must be avoided, how would you evaluate that claim?
14. There are, as you know, different groups within Islam. What if a reform group began encouraging depictions of Muhammad as a signifier of reform, asserting that the contrary interpretation is false, and that those who attack depictions are wrong about Islam? How would you decide which faction to avoid offending?
15. Let's say some blogger starts a trend of using this emoticon: @[–<. It is widely understood that the emoticon is meant by its users to depict Muhammad, in an effort to illustrate that bans on depictions are unprincipled and can easily be made ridiculous. Would you run the emoticon? Or would you just describe it? How would you decide? 16. Imagine that a segment of Muslims begins to assert that it is sacrilegious to print Muhammad's name without a ṣalawāt like "pbuh." Are there conditions that would arise that would lead you to do so? What are those conditions? Are violence, or threats of violence, one of them? I'm just asking questions.
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